Archive for the ‘Syria – chemical weapons’ category

In Syria, Trump’s Red Line May be Holding

June 29, 2017

In Syria, Trump’s Red Line May be Holding, Front Page MagazineJoseph Klein, June 29, 2017

It is not only what Assad has been doing in unleashing his ghastly chemical weapons on his own people, causing horrible suffering in their wake, which demands our attention. After all, Assad has been causing such suffering with conventional weapons as well, including his use of barrel bombs, which we have repeatedly condemned but have not taken specific military action to stop. To do so would almost inevitably draw us into a wider war. What makes chemical and other weapons of mass destruction different is their potential proliferation to the very Islamic terrorists we are trying to defeat.

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Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis claimed Wednesday that the Syrian regime has drawn back from plans to conduct another chemical attack, following a warning by the Trump administration of serious consequences if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces followed through with their plans. 

U.S. intelligence detected “active preparations for chemical weapons use” at the same air base from which the regime allegedly had launched its prior chemical attack last April that caused mass casualties. President Trump had responded to the April chemical attack with a barrage of cruise missiles targeting that air base. The White House issued its public warning to the Assad regime on Monday in unambiguous terms, declaring that Assad and his military would pay a “heavy price” if his regime conducted another chemical attack.

“It appears that they took the warning seriously. They didn’t do it,” Mattis told reporters.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, went even further in crediting the Trump administration for stopping Assad at least for now. “I can tell you that due to the President’s actions, we did not see an incident,” Ambassador Haley claimed at a House of Representatives foreign affairs committee hearing. “I would like to think that the President saved many innocent men, women and children.”

It is difficult to prove what may have actually motivated Assad. In any case, whether Assad holds back for good remains to be seen. But we do know the Trump administration is watching constantly for any moves by the Assad regime that could signal an imminent chemical attack and has military assets in place to swiftly respond to such an attack, if not prevent one in the first place.

President Trump not only demonstrated last April that he would follow through on his threats if certain red lines of his were crossed, unlike our previous president. In addition to its warning, the Trump administration may have sent some concrete signals to the Assad regime that it means business this time as well. According to Debkafile, “Signs were gathering in Washington and the Middle East Tuesday, June 26 that the Trump administration was preparing a substantial military operation against the Syrian army and Bashar Assad’s allies, such as the foreign pro-Iranian Shiite militias and Hizballah. Some US military sources suggested that an American preemptive strike was in store in the coming hours to prevent Assad’s army from again resorting to chemical warfare against his people.”

Assad may still decide to launch another chemical attack, figuring that his key allies, particularly Russia, will continue to back him. No doubt, he took note of Russia’s stern response to the U.S.’s downing of a Syrian warplane earlier this month, including a warning from the Russian Defense Ministry that “All kinds of airborne vehicles, including aircraft and UAVs of the international coalition detected to the west of the Euphrates River will be tracked by the Russian SAM systems as air targets.” The Syrian regime had also already taken some precautions by moving most of its operational aircraft to a Russian airbase in Syria after the April missile strike. The Russian airbase is protected by fairly advanced air defense systems. An American missile strike on Syrian aircraft located at a Russian air base would in all likelihood be seen as a major escalation of the war by the Russian government, risking a direct military confrontation between U.S. and Russia that the Trump administration may be loath to risk. As if to thumb his nose at the Trump administration’s latest threats by demonstrating the strength of his military alliance with Russia, Assad was seen strutting around a Russian air baseinspecting its aircraft and defense systems. He was even photographed sitting in the cockpit of a Russian fighter jet.

Indeed, Russia appears ready to raise the stakes to bolster the Syrian dictator’s regime. Debkafile reports that Russia is “building a new base in southeastern Syria,” which would “provide Russia with a lever of control over the volatile Syrian southeast and its borders, where US-backed and Iranian-backed forces are fighting for dominance.”

As Russia raises the stakes, the U.S. must be clearer than ever as to its strategic objectives in Syria, which it is willing to back up with military force even in the face of Russian threats.  We must do all we can to prevent getting sucked into Syria’s civil war, including by undertaking any military efforts at regime change. That said, we must repel any military action by the Syrian regime or its allies that would prevent us from prosecuting the war against ISIS, which remains our number one objective until the ISIS sanctuaries, infrastructure and leadership are for all intents and purposes destroyed.

However, we also cannot ignore the threat that Assad’s chemical weapons program continues to pose. The Obama administration had thought that it had largely eliminated the threat “diplomatically,” when it reached a phony deal with Russia to oversee the removal and destruction of the Syrian regime’s declared chemical weapons. The opportunity for cheating was all too plain to see, except by Obama and his clueless Secretary of State John Kerry. We are now seeing the consequences. According to Secretary of Defense Mattis, Syria’s chemical program remains intact.

It is not only what Assad has been doing in unleashing his ghastly chemical weapons on his own people, causing horrible suffering in their wake, which demands our attention. After all, Assad has been causing such suffering with conventional weapons as well, including his use of barrel bombs, which we have repeatedly condemned but have not taken specific military action to stop. To do so would almost inevitably draw us into a wider war. What makes chemical and other weapons of mass destruction different is their potential proliferation to the very Islamic terrorists we are trying to defeat. The transfer of chemical or biological weapons to terrorist hands would represent the most dangerous outcome of the Syrian conflict to the rest of the world, including to the United States. That is why we must monitor where we believe Assad’s remaining chemical weapons and production facilities are located, prevent them from being used or even moved from known locations, do all that we can to keep them out of the hands of the terrorists and destroy the chemical weapons and production facilities when the opportunity presents itself.

Assad shown around Russian Latakia air base

June 28, 2017

Assad shown around Russian Latakia air base, DEBKAfile, June 28, 2017

President Assad inspects Russian weapons systems at the Hmeimim air base in western Syria.

Shortly after Washington warned Damascus against any more chemical attacks and stressed that Russia and Iran would also be held to account, Syrian ruler Bashar Assad’s visit to the Russian Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia on Tuesday, June 27, bears striking symbolic, if not provocative, significance. Their guest from Damascus was shown around the base by the commanders of Russian forces in Syria and allowed a close look at the warplanes and attack helicopters lined up for his perusal. Indeed, as DEBKAfile’s military sources show in the series of attached photographs, Assad had his picture taken while sitting in the cockpit of a Russian fighter jet and while he was closely examining Russian S-400 and S-300 air defense missile batteries.

Not all the photos showed the base neatly prepared for a formal visit. A group of Russian troops were seen in a variety of work clothes standing untidily around some of the weapons systems, indicating that Assad’s visit was improvised in a hurry as an attempt to show that Moscow and Damascus were as tight as ever and ready together to repel any American attack on Syrian military targets.

Assad sits in the cockpit of a Russian fighter jet.

WATCH: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Announces Sanctions After Syria Chemical Attack

April 24, 2017

WATCH: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Announces Sanctions After Syria Chemical Attack, Fox News via YouTube, April 24, 2017

 

Message in the MOAB

April 14, 2017

Message in the MOAB, Power LineScott Johnson, April 14, 2017

(Just for the halibut, please see also ‘March for Science’ Group Laments Trump’s Bombing Of ‘Marginalized’ ISIS Fighters. — DM)

Last week President Trump authorized a limited missile strike against the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons against civilians. I explicated what I thought was “the message in the missiles” (I stretched to find 10 messages). Yesterday the United States dropped the “mother of all bombs” — the most powerful conventional bomb in the American arsenal — on an Islamic State cave complex in Afghanistan on Thursday. The MOAB is the colloquial name given to the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast.

Here is the New York Times story on the Pentagon’s announcement. It is about as bad as one might expect under the circumstances. The Times seems mystified by the whole thing, taking it as another in an endless series of black marks against President Trump.

Like the military reprisal against the Syrian regime, the MOAB send a message or 10. Herewith, as William F. Buckley used to say, a few observations:

1. The MOAB has been around since 2002, but this is the first time it has been used in combat. It was used to achieve a specific military purpose (see notes 8 & 9 below) with respect to which the Obama administration had previously refrained. When I say “refrained,” I mean “restrained the military.” The era of Obama foreign policy is over.

2. Trump himself expanded on this point at the White House yesterday. He asserted there’s been a “tremendous difference” militarily between the Obama administration and the Trump administration. “If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks and compare that to really what’s happened over the last eight years, you’ll see there’s a tremendous difference,” Trump said. “And this was another very successful mission,” he added.

3. Trump elaborated. “Everybody knows exactly what happened. What I do, I authorized my military. We have given them total authorization. That’s what they’re doing.”

4. The MOAB serves as a reminder of other tools in the chest. The MOAB is not our biggest non-nuclear weapon. That is the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP. The National Interest reminds us that our Air Force also fields the GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), which is a massive precision-guided 30,000lb bunker-busting weapon usually dropped from a Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

5. The MOAB therefore sent a message to North Korea. It put an exclamation point on the military reprisal against the Syrian regime. It reiterated that the era of Obama foreign policy is over. Trump himself professed agnosticism on this point, but this was the message to North Korea: “I don’t know if this sends a message. It doesn’t make any difference if it does or not. North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of.” What we see here is akin to the rhetorical device of apophysis or praeteritio.

6. Not coincidentally, NBC News reports: “U.S. may launch strike if North Korea reaches for nuclear trigger.” The use of the MOAB in Afghanistan makes the leaks here highly credible.

7. The MOAB sent a message to Iran. I can’t find a citation to support me here, but it’s obvious. What goes for North Korea goes for Iran.

8. The use of the bomb had a specific military purpose. As former intelligence officer and Army veteran Michael Pregent commented explained on FOX News last night, ISIS fighters in Afghanistan are using the massive tunnel complex that Al Qaeda used starting back in 2001 when U.S. forces were deployed to Afghanistan. “They used the same tunnel complex for bin Laden to escape to Pakistan,” Pregent said. “The Haqqani network, a terrorist organization out of Pakistan, uses it to bring in lethal aid. So you have these organizations like Al Qaeda, the Haqqani group, the Taliban and now ISIS using a tunnel complex to kill Americans in the past.” Thomas Spoehr has more to the same effect here.

9. At NRO, David French highlights what he calls “an important and painful point about our almost 16-year long war [in Afghanistan].” This is the point: “Excessive American caution has cost American lives and American limbs, and it has left families and friends of the victims with deep psychological wounds. Those wounds would be grievous enough in the best circumstances, but they’re compounded by the fact that many of the decisions not to shoot, not to use artillery, or not to drop bombs were based on a combination of rules of engagement and military misjudgments that were transparently foolish at the time.” (Please do read the whole thing.)

10. Don’t let me forget to mention that the Obama era in American foreign policy is over.

The White House A-Team

April 14, 2017

The White House A-Team, Bill Whittle Channel via YouTube, April 13, 2017

A breakdown on Trump’s dream team of Rex Tillerson, Nikki Haley, and H.R. McMaster after recent occurrences in Syria conflict.

America is back, and Russia is listening

April 13, 2017

America is back, and Russia is listening, Israel Hayom, Boaz Bismuth, April 13, 2017

Trump knows what Obama refused to acknowledge — that the U.S. cannot shirk its duty as the world’s policeman and the region’s sheriff. Obama hoped that he could just ignore this region or let others lead.

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In September 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. This was just days after then-U.S. President Barack Obama effectively decided not to take military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad, who had just used chemical weapons against his people. Two years later, having realized that the U.S. left a vacuum in the region, Russia returned with a force not seen since the end of the Cold War.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who was sworn in less than 100 days ago, has decided to change the political equation the Russians have created. Surprisingly, the Russians are willing to listen, despite their repeated mention of the sorry state of relations between Moscow and Washington.

The U.S. media is fond of reporting on Trump’s so-called illicit ties to the Russian government. But the truth of the matter is that it was Obama, in 2013, who tried to cozy up to the Russians, because he wanted to reach a nuclear deal with Iran — which he considered the most important part of his legacy, much more than an intervention in Syria.

Russian-American relations reached “a low point,” as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this week, as a result of the situation in Syria. But both superpowers are still determined to fight terrorism together and support an international inquiry of the chemical attack in Syria’s Idlib province last week.

The joint press conference Tillerson held with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday underscored the fact that superpowers have their own language, and when the U.S. talks like the superpower that it is, Russia has no choice but to play along, even if the Russians made sure Tillerson had to wait until the very last moment before he was told he could meet Putin in Moscow (and the meeting was only two hours long).

Despite all that has been said on Russia-U.S. relations, it is important to note that relations between two big powers are by definition different than any other forms of bilateral relations. Moreover, the current escalation is a plus for Russia because it puts it on equal footing with the U.S. That is why Russia made sure Tillerson’s visit had all the hallmarks of a summit in which the world’s leading superpowers determine how the world is going to run. As far as the Russians are concerned, this is the main accomplishment of the meeting. In the grand scheme of things, it is a win-win for both sides: Trump can distance himself from Russia, and Putin can prove that he can stand up to the Americans.

Despite what most people think, Trump actually acted strategically when he ordered the missile strike last week on a Syrian airbase in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The strike was designed to send a much wider and strategic message, that would resonate well beyond Syria — in Iran, in North Korea and in Russia. It was designed to make sure people think twice before they mess with the U.S.

Trump knows what Obama refused to acknowledge — that the U.S. cannot shirk its duty as the world’s policeman and the region’s sheriff. Obama hoped that he could just ignore this region or let others lead.

Yours truly predicted Trump would be tested in his first months in office, just like President Ronald Reagan was tested in his first year in office. Back then Reagan had to respond to air traffic controllers who went on strike at federal airports; now Trump has to deal with the Russians and Assad. Trump has no qualms about doing an about-face, even on issues that he is not supposed to care about. Both Reagan and Trump changed the rules of the game when they responded to those early tests. Such behavior creates the element of surprise and proves that a president is willing to act like a madman.

Tillerson says US-Russia relations at ‘low point,’ calls for improving ties after Putin meeting

April 12, 2017

Tillerson says US-Russia relations at ‘low point,’ calls for improving ties after Putin meeting, Fox News, April 12, 2017

(Please see also, The Real Winner in the Russia Investigations Is Iran.

The best interests of the United States would be to woo Russia away from these maniacs — and we very well could have.  We are, at least for now, still the world’s biggest GNP and control a great deal of the global economy.  Greedy despots like Putin know that as well as anybody.  They may not feel good about it, but to some degree they might play with us.  And if they wanted to enough, if we sweetened the pot enough, they’d even disengage from the mullahs, leaving them with no ally of value, no substantial defender.

Trump — or some people close to him — may have had this in mind when they started speaking with the Russians way back in the Paleolithic Era of the transition days.  They’d have been fools not to.  They wouldn’t have been doing their duty to the United States or to the civilized world for that matter.

Now Trump or his people can no longer even consider making such inroads. They would be accused immediately of treason or something close. The possibility of separating the Russians from Iran has been destroyed by these investigations — first by the House, now by the Senate, and always by the media.

— DM)

 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a hastily arranged meeting in Moscow late Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin as he worked to ease tensions with the country over Syria and other global crises – even as he and President Trump, from afar, continued to pressure Putin over his alliance with Bashar Assad. 

Tillerson, speaking frankly during a joint press conference in Moscow alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, said U.S.-Russia relations have hit a “low point,” while stressing the need to improve ties.

“There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship,” Tillerson said.

Those tensions have mounted since Trump ordered a missile strike on an airbase controlled by the Assad government last week, in response to a chemical weapons attack.

Tillerson and Lavrov spoke after Tillerson met in private with Putin at the Kremlin for nearly two hours.

Tillerson, the first Trump Cabinet official to visit Russia, originally was only slated to meet with Lavrov but spoke with Putin after first sitting down with his Russian counterpart.

Tillerson traveled to Moscow just days after the Trump administration launched missile strikes on an airbase in Syria, angering Bashar al-Assad’s allies in Moscow. The strike was in response to a chemical weapons attack earlier last week.

Tillerson ratcheted up his rhetoric en route to Moscow earlier this week, saying “the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end” and challenging Russia to reconsider its alliance with the government in Damascus.

Trump also told Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo that Putin is backing “an evil person” in Syria, and it’s “very bad for Russia.”

At the same time, Trump made clear he’s pushing for peace in Syria. He said, “we’re not going into Syria,” but said pressure will be on Russia to ensure peace.

“If Russia didn’t go in and back this animal, you wouldn’t have a problem right now,” he said.

Earlier Wednesday, during a forum at The Newseum in Washington, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about what could be on the table at a Putin-Tillerson meeting. He spoke to their common interests.

“I think there is a shared interest in defeating ISIS in the region that we have a national security concern that should align with their national security concern,” he said.

Spicer had tough words for Russia’s alliance with Assad, however.

“Russia right now is an island,” he said. “It’s Russia, North Korea and Iran … Russia is among that group the only non-failed state.” He said Russia is “isolating” itself by standing by Assad.

Mission accomplished in Syria

April 12, 2017

Mission accomplished in Syria, Israel Hayom, Clifford D. May. April 12, 2017

(Accomplished or just begun? — DM)

Congress should send Trump the legislation it is now considering, seeking to impose new sanctions on Iran in reprisal for its continuing support of terrorists, its missile tests and its maintenance of more than 35,000 troops in Syria, including its own, those of its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, and Shiite fighters recruited from Iraq and Afghanistan. Suspending Iran’s deal with Boeing/Airbus would be useful, too. Only the willfully credulous believe that Iran’s theocrats won’t use such aircraft for illicit military purposes.

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If you’re still unsure about whether U.S. President Donald Trump did the right thing when he launched 59 cruise missiles at Syria’s Shayrat Air Base last week, consider the alternative.

He knew that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad had yet again used chemical weapons to murder Syrian civilians, women and children prominent among them. He knew that Iran and Russia had enabled this atrocity, as they have many others. He knew he had two choices.

He could shrug, instruct his U.N. ambassador to deliver a tearful speech calling on the “international community” to do something, and then go play a round of golf. Or he could demonstrate that the United States still has the power and the grit to stand up to tyrants and terrorists, thereby beginning to re-establish America’s deterrent capability.

In other words, this was what Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz would call a no-brainer. (Well, loosely translated.) A mission was accomplished. Do harder missions lie ahead? Yes, of course. But I suspect Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have made that abundantly clear to the new president.

We now know for certain that Russia failed to live up to its 2013 commitment to ensure that Assad surrendered all his illegal chemical weapons under the deal it brokered. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acerbically questioned whether that was the result of complicity or incompetence or whether Russia allowed itself to be duped by Assad.

The strike ordered by President Trump was not “unbelievably small” — then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s description of the punishment then-President Barack Obama decided not to impose in response to Assad’s earlier use of chemical weapons. It was big enough to make clear that American diplomats are again carrying big sticks. (For Obama to insist that diplomacy and force are alternatives was patently absurd.)

Conveniently, Trump was dining with Chinese President Xi Jinping when the strikes occurred. It’s fair to speculate that Xi is today thinking harder about American requests to rein in Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator whose drive to acquire nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the American mainland has become what Tillerson called an “imminent” threat.

Having passed his first major national security test, Trump is now obliged to demonstrate firmness and consistency. What plans might the Pentagon have on the shelf to respond to further provocations? The next round of Tomahawk missiles could permanently ground Assad’s air force. That would make it easier to then establish no-fly zones. If such measures do not alter the calculations of Assad and his Iranian and Russian patrons, consideration could be given to leveling his defense, intelligence and command-and-control centers as well.

Another idea under discussion: setting up safe havens, or, to use a better term, “self-protection zones,” for those fleeing the Syrian regime and various jihadist forces, Sunni and Shiite alike. Israel and Jordan could help the inhabitants of such areas adjacent to their borders defend themselves. The Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis could contribute to the cost. Might this lead to the partition of Syria? Most likely, but it’s difficult to imagine a “political solution” that would not include such readjustments.

All this, while useful and perhaps even necessary, should be seen as insufficient. Syria is a major humanitarian catastrophe but only one piece in a much larger geopolitical puzzle. Sooner rather than later, the Trump administration needs to develop what Obama refused to contemplate: a comprehensive and coherent strategy to counter the belligerent, imperialist and supremacist forces that have emerged from the Middle East and are now spreading like weeds around the world.

The Islamic State group will of course need to be driven off the lands on which it has attempted to establish a caliphate. After that, its terrorists will have to be hunted, along with those of al-Qaida, wherever they hide (e.g., Egypt where, over the weekend, they bombed two Coptic Christian churches).

But — and this is crucial — accomplishing these missions must not serve to further empower Iran’s jihadist rulers, who dream of establishing an expanding imamate, the Shiite version of a caliphate.

Most immediately, Congress should send Trump the legislation it is now considering, seeking to impose new sanctions on Iran in reprisal for its continuing support of terrorists, its missile tests and its maintenance of more than 35,000 troops in Syria, including its own, those of its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, and Shiite fighters recruited from Iraq and Afghanistan. Suspending Iran’s deal with Boeing/Airbus would be useful, too. Only the willfully credulous believe that Iran’s theocrats won’t use such aircraft for illicit military purposes.

That the United States cannot solve all the world’s problems was one of Trump’s campaign themes. But the implication is not necessarily, as some of his supporters hoped, that he would turn a blind eye to all atrocities and threats not already within America’s borders.

In the last century, most Americans recognized, in some cases with enormous reluctance, that there was no good alternative to doing whatever was necessary to rout the Nazis and communists, enemies whose goal was to kill off the democratic experiment.

In this century, jihadists and Islamists harbor the same ambition. We can attempt to appease them. We can try to make ourselves inoffensive to them. We can keep our hand extended, hoping that in time they will unclench their fists. Or we can decide instead to plan for a long war that will end with the defeat of these latest enemies of America and the rest of the civilized world. If Trump has grasped that within his first 100 days, he’s not off to such a bad start.

Radical Iran-led Axis Confronted with U.S. Deterrence for First Time

April 11, 2017

Radical Iran-led Axis Confronted with U.S. Deterrence for First Time, Investigative Project on Terrorism, Yaakov Lappin, April 11, 2017

Until recently, the United States focused its attention exclusively on Sunni jihadist threats – ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups. While these terrorists certainly need to be attacked, turning a blind eye to the activities of the more powerful radical Shi’ite coalition did nothing to stop the region’s destabilization. In this context, Assad’s numerous crimes against humanity went unanswered.

This helped embolden Assad to use chemical weapons. It also gave the Iranians confidence to magnify their meddling in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, and to target many other states. The end result is Iran’s enhanced ability to export its Khomeiniest Islamic fundamentalist doctrine.

Just as Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have poured into Syria, the same has happened in Iraq, where 100,000 fighters supported by Tehran fight alongside the Iraqi government forces against ISIS. The IRGC’s network extends to Yemen’s Houthi Ansar Allah forces, who receive Iranian assistance. Ansar Allah, a heavily armed Shi’ite military force, fires ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia on a regular basis.

The IRGC and Hizballah have been linked to a recent large-scale terrorist plot in Bahrain.

If the message addressed in the cruise missile strike is followed up with a strategy of deterrence, addressed to Ayatollah Khamenei as much as it was addressed to Assad, the U.S. could begin projecting to the world that it recognizes the threat posed by Shi’ite jihadists as much as it takes seriously the threat from their fundamentalist Sunni equivalents.

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The conflict in Syria has long ceased being a civil war, becoming instead a clash between coalitions and blocs that divide the entire Middle East.

The Iranian-led axis is the most dangerous and highly armed bloc fighting in Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s regime is not an independent actor, but rather, a component of this wider axis. In many respects, Assad is a junior member of the Iranian coalition set up to fight for him.

Russia joined the Iranian axis in 2015, acting for its own reasons as the pro-Assad coalition’s air force, helping to preserve the Syrian regime.

This coalition enabled the Assad regime to conduct mass murder and ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Syria, while also using unconventional weapons against civilians in an effort to terrorize rebel organizations into submission.

Feeling confident by its growing control of Syria, Iran also uses its regional coalition to arm, finance, and deploy Shi’ite jihadist agents all over the Middle East, and to attack those who stand in the way of Iranian domination.

The Iranian-led axis has been able to spread violence, terrorism, and Islamic militancy without facing repercussions.

Until recently, the United States focused its attention exclusively on Sunni jihadist threats – ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups. While these terrorists certainly need to be attacked, turning a blind eye to the activities of the more powerful radical Shi’ite coalition did nothing to stop the region’s destabilization. In this context, Assad’s numerous crimes against humanity went unanswered.

This helped embolden Assad to use chemical weapons. It also gave the Iranians confidence to magnify their meddling in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, and to target many other states. The end result is Iran’s enhanced ability to export its Khomeiniest Islamic fundamentalist doctrine.

That sent a troubling message to America’s regional allies, who, in the face of these threats, formed a de facto coalition of pragmatic Sunni states – a coalition that includes Israel.

On April 6, the U.S. sent a signal that something may have changed. A cruise missile attack on an Assad regime air base, in response to a savage chemical weapons massacre in Idlib, Syria, was, first and foremost, a moral response to an intolerable act of evil.

But the strike also carries a wider prospective message about Washington’s new willingness to enforce red lines against Assad and his Shi’ite allies.

Potentially, it is an indication that the U.S. is willing to use its military prowess beyond the objective of targeting ISIS, and that it recognizes that Sunni jihadists are not the only global security threat that warrants the use of military force.

Statements by senior Trump administration officials indicate that a shift has occurred. “What you have in Syria is a very destructive cycle of violence perpetuated by ISIS, obviously, but also by this regime and their Iranian and Russian sponsors,” National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster told Fox News Sunday.

Russia must choose between its alignment with Assad, Iran, and Hizballah, and working with the United States, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday. The firm comment was made hours before he touched down in Moscow for talks.

According to U.S. officials, the April 6 missile attack destroyed 20 percent of Assad’s fighter jets. It represents the first time that Washington has taken military action against a member of the Iranian-led coalition.

The strike could evolve into a ‘dialogue of deterrence’ that the U.S. initiates against dangerous actors. These radical actors all have ‘return addresses,’ and are likely to prove responsive to cost-benefit considerations, despite their extreme ideology. They may think twice before considering further development and usage of unconventional weapons.

Washington is now able to exercise muscular diplomacy – the only kind that is effective in the Middle East – and inform all members of the Iran’s pro-Assad coalition that the deployment of unconventional weapons will not be tolerated. It can also begin to rally and strengthen the pro-American coalition of states in the Middle East, who seek to keep a lid on both ISIS and Iran.

With American officials indicating that they are “ready to do more” in Syria if necessary, signs suggest that the strike represents the start of a policy of deterrence, and leaving open future options for drawing additional red lines.

In theory, should Washington decide that Iran’s transfer of weapons and extremist Shi’ite military forces to other lands has reached unacceptable levels, or that Iran’s missile development program has gone far enough, it could call on Tehran to cease these activities. This call would carry substantially more weight following last week’s missile attack on the Syrian airbase.

The U.S. is in a better position to inform Assad and his allies that there is a limit to how far they can go in pursuing their murderous ambitions.

While the objective of creating a renewed American deterrent posture is vital, it should not be confused with plans for wider military intervention in the seemingly endless Syrian conflict.

There is little reason to believe that conventional weapons use against Syrian civilians is going to stop any time soon, or that the enormous tragedy suffered by the Syrian people is about to end.

And there is certainly no indication that the U.S. is planning to initiate large-scale military involvement in this failed state.

Hence, the missile strike should be seen for what it is: an attempt to boost American deterrence, which can then be leveraged to restrain radical actors that have, until now, been operating completely unchecked.

That is a message that will likely be heard loud and clear not only in Damascus, but also in Tehran, which has not given up its long-term ambition of building nuclear weapons.

North Korea, which helped build Syria’s plutonium nuclear plant (destroyed in 2007 in a reported Israeli air strike), and which maintains close links with Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, can be expected to take note as well.

If a policy of strategic deterrence follows the strike, it could have an impact on a coalition that is not just keeping Assad’s regime alive, but spreading its radical influence in many other areas.

In Syria, the Iranian Republican Guards Corps (IRGC) oversees ground operations across many battlefields to prop up Bashar al-Assad. Iran has gathered and armed tens of thousands of Shi’ite militia members from across the region into Syria, and manages a local force composed of 100,000 members. They fight alongside the Syrian Arab Army against Sunni rebel organizations, thereby increasing and entrenching Iranian influence.

The IRGC and its elite Quds Force are also helping to fill Hizballah’s weapons depots in Lebanon, with a vast array of surface-to-surface projectiles that are all pointed at Israel, often using Syria as an arms trafficking transit zone. Syria acts as a bridge that grants Iran access to Lebanon, and allows it to threaten both Israel and Jordan.

Jordan, an important U.S. ally, is deeply concerned by Iran’s actions in Syria, as evidenced by recent comments made by King Abdullah, who told the Washington Post that “there is an attempt to forge a geographic link between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah/Lebanon.” IRGC forces are stationed within a mere 45 miles from Jordan’s border, he warned, adding that any hostile forces approaching the Hashemite Kingdom “are not going to be tolerated.”

Hizballah, a Lebanese-based Iranian Shi’ite proxy, evolved into a powerful army by sending 7,000 to 9,000 of its own highly trained members into Syria’s ground war. It helped rescue the Assad regime from collapse, and took part in battles stretching from Aleppo to the Qalamoun Mountains northeast of Damascus.

Last year, the Arab League and the Sunni countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council all declared Hizballah to be a terrorist entity.

Just as Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have poured into Syria, the same has happened in Iraq, where 100,000 fighters supported by Tehran fight alongside the Iraqi government forces against ISIS. The IRGC’s network extends to Yemen’s Houthi Ansar Allah forces, who receive Iranian assistance. Ansar Allah, a heavily armed Shi’ite military force, fires ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia on a regular basis.

The IRGC and Hizballah have been linked to a recent large-scale terrorist plot in Bahrain.

If the message addressed in the cruise missile strike is followed up with a strategy of deterrence, addressed to Ayatollah Khamenei as much as it was addressed to Assad, the U.S. could begin projecting to the world that it recognizes the threat posed by Shi’ite jihadists as much as it takes seriously the threat from their fundamentalist Sunni equivalents.

Washington’s campaign to pressure Russia to distance itself from its Middle Eastern allies could play an important part of this message.

Russia ‘furious’ with Assad over gas attack

April 11, 2017

Russia ‘furious’ with Assad over gas attack, Al Monitor,

(From the for “whatever it’s worth” department.– DM)

A Syrian man collects samples from the site of a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, on April 5, 2017. (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Privately, Russian officials are furious with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for a suspected April 4 chemical weapons attack in Idlib province that killed over 80 people, Russia analysts said. They see it as threatening to sabotage the potential for US-Russia rapprochement ahead of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first visit to Moscow this week.

But Russia is also confused by what it perceives as contradictory statements from various top Trump Cabinet officials on whether US policy is shifting to demand Assad’s ouster, to what degree does the United States think Russia is culpable for Assad’s behavior, and more broadly, who from the administration speaks for Donald Trump, they said.

“Assad committed suicide here,” Michael Kofman, a Russia military expert with the Kennan Institute, told Al-Monitor in an interview April 10. Russia “will never forgive him for this.”

The suspected April 4 nerve gas attack on rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun that killed over 80 people, many of them children, “is a complete disaster” for Russia, Kofman said. “It destroyed the legacy of the 2013 deal [to remove Syria’s chemical weapons] that both countries [the United States and Russia] certified. So it made liars of both of us.”

He noted, “It provided all the ammunition to sabotage rapprochement between the United States and Russia. Look at the atmospherics. It caused public embarrassment. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has to swallow US cruise missile strikes. Notice he has not defended Assad. It looks bad for Russia.”

Kofman added, “It demonstrates … in terms of Putin being a power broker … that the Russian role is very aspirational. It prevented him from doing this.”

“The Russians weren’t happy about what happened,” Nikolas Gvosdev, a Russia expert and professor at the US Naval War College, told Al-Monitor, referring to the April 4 chemical weapons attack. “They don’t like unpredictability … when things happen that throw what they are planning off course.”

“The Russians don’t like to be surprised,” Gvosdev added. “They don’t like … [to be made to] look like they can’t enforce agreements or don’t have as much influence over Assad as they were suggesting.”

Trump discussed Syria during a phone call with British Prime Minister Theresa May on April 10, and according to the British readout, the two leaders said they saw an opportunity to press Russia to break its alliance with Assad.

May and Trump “agreed that a window of opportunity now exists in which to persuade Russia that its alliance with Assad is no longer in its strategic interest,” a Downing Street spokesman said in a press release.

While US officials have said the US cruise missile strikes on the Shayrat air base on April 6 were to punish and deter Syria’s use of chemical weapons, there has been some confusion caused by statements from different Trump Cabinet officials on whether US policy is creeping toward regime change. US officials, including US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, have also suggested Russia was either complicit or incompetent for Assad’s chemical weapons attack. They have expressed anger that Russia has, in their opinion, tried to publicly sow disinformation about it.

“You know the interesting thing, Chuck, is when this chemical weapons murder happened to so many people, Russia’s reaction was not ‘oh how horrible’ or ‘how could they do this to innocent children’ or ‘how awful is that,’” Haley told Chuck Todd of NBC’s “Meet the Press” on April 9. “Their initial reaction was Assad didn’t do it, the Syrian government didn’t do it.”

“Why were they that defensive that quick?” Haley continued. “The first priority for them was to cover for Assad. So what we knew from intelligence, that the Syrian regime had done this again, as they had done so many times before. We had evidence they had done it. It’s obviously classified, so I’m not the one that would release the information, but it was enough that the president knew.”

Even while pressuring Russia because of its diplomatic and military support to Assad, McMaster reiterated that the United States is still looking for a political resolution to end Syria’s civil war.

“What we really need to do, and what everyone who’s involved in this conflict needs to do, is to do everything they can to resolve this civil war,” McMaster told Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace April 9.

“What’s required is some kind of a political solution to that very complex problem, and … it’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation [of] the Assad regime,” McMaster said. “Now we’re not saying that we are the ones who are going to affect that change. What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions. Russia should ask themselves, what are we doing here? Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population and using the most heinous weapons available?”

Tillerson, who is scheduled to meet with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow April 12, expressed disappointment at Russia’s public criticism of the US airstrikes, but he said he did not conclude Russia was complicit in the Syrian regime’s suspected chemical weapons attack.

“I’m not seeing any hard evidence that connects the Russians directly to the planning or execution of this particular chemical weapons attack, and indeed, that’s why we’ve been trying to be very clear that the Russians were never targeted in this strike,” Tillerson told George Stephanopoulos of ABC’s “This Week” on April 9.

“Why Russia has not been able to achieve that [removal of Syria’s residual chemical weapons] is unclear to me,” Tillerson said. “I don’t draw conclusions of complicity at all; but clearly, they’ve been incompetent, and perhaps they’ve just simply been outmaneuvered by the Syrians.

But Tillerson said he still holds out hope for productive talks with the Russians when he travels there this week, and he hopes Russia can press Assad to never use chemical weapons again.

“I’m hopeful that we can have constructive talks with the Russian government, with Foreign Minister Lavrov, and have Russia be supportive of a process that will lead to a stable Syria,” Tillerson said. “Clearly, they … have the greatest influence on Bashar al-Assad and certainly his decisions to use chemical weapons. They should have the greatest influence on him to cause him to no longer use those. I hope that Russia is thinking carefully about its continued alliance with Bashar al-Assad, because every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer in to some level of responsibility.”

The changing US calculus on Assad and Russia is making it harder to see what Russia and the United States would be negotiating when Tillerson meets Lavrov April 12, Gvosdev said.

“The ask and the give are harder to ascertain,” Gvosdev said. “Two weeks ago, it was how do we move this [Syria] political process along.”

But now Tillerson is likely to tell the Russians that domestic politics in the United States is playing a bigger role in this, and “I can offer you less upfront,” Gvosdev speculated. “At a time when the Russian establishment very much … wants certain things upfront.”

“We are no longer talking about sanctions relief, [but how to] prevent new sanctions from being imposed,” Gvosdev said.

Assad’s actions have upended what was an important foreign policy priority for Putin — exploring the potential for cooperation with the United States on Syria and a possible rapprochement — and have seemingly taken sanctions relief off the table for discussion for now, and Russia will not forgive him, Kofman said.

“They are furious; it is very clear,” Kofman said, noting that there has been “no actual statement from Putin in support of Assad.”

“That is why I am saying he has signed his own political death warrant,” Kofman said of Assad. “They [the Russians] will never forgive him. They will wait. The time will come when Syria is stabilized, and they can actually have a change of power at the top. And then come for him.”